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poverty in the forests of eastern Ontario…

February 28, 2016

The guy sitting in the front row is wearing one of those camouflage winter coats you can buy for $40 at the local five-and-dime down on mainstreet in our hometown. It looks like he has worn it 7 days a week, and for about the last 40 years on a construction site.

Over it he has a sleeveless leather vest with two rows of fringes and a huge Harley Davidson insignia on the back. He has long dirty grey hair, in a pony tail held with an elastic band, and despite the fact that it is -15C out, he only has a do-rag on his head.

He looks to be about 6′ tall and 240lbs, with a nose that is bent in ways that only a fist could have bent it.

I sit down beside him wearing a Tibetan coat my wife gave me for Christmas, a scarf she knit me in our first year together, and my father’s old fur hat.

I look ridiculous by comparison.

It is Saturday morning at our local auction house – 10 miles out of town in a decrepit former public school (my old public school) that now smells of mold, mice, bad coffee, and filled with a roomful of decaying people in their 60’s and 70’s. How the building has not been condemned by the municipality escapes me.

The man beside me in the front row opens the day’s bidding on the Franklin Mint Civil War replica hunting knife at $20. The knife comes with a Confederate flag emblazoned on the handle and General Jackson engraved on the blade. In quick succession the bidding jumps back-and-forth between the man beside me and an unseen someone at the back of the room $20 – 25 – 30 -35 – 40, before the man beside me wins out at $45.

Next up is a package deal: the state flag of Texas, a Republican Party flag, two 1960’s-era travelogue books: the first for the Gettysburg Civil War Museum, the second for Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

These are followed by old magazines dedicated to the Civil War, framed portrait prints of famous (dead) Indian Chiefs, a variety of model cars (in their original boxes) of the kind popular in the American south in the 1970’s – GTO’s, Chargers, Mustangs. A replica Dukes of Hazzards car. The bidding tops out at $85 per car.

The man beside me tells me that it’s the fucking antique dealers who are driving the prices through the roof. The same three people keep coming up to collect the cars. No one else in the room can afford to bid on the items.

The auctioneer moves on to an electric Miller Genuine Draft neon wall clock, an assortment of hunting knifes, some Nazi paraphernalia, WWII propaganda magazines.

The room is abuzz when two of the out-of-town dealers go toe-to-toe over a huge mint condition hand painted Red Indian Motor Oil sign. It finally ends at $300. The auctioneer tells us that the sign will sell for at least triple that on Kijiji.

My wife leans into my ear and in a very quiet whisper asks me if we have somehow walked through a time-travel machine back to Georgia of the ’70’s?

“How did this stuff end up in rural Ontario?”

We look around the room full of good ole boys and their wives – many grasping styrofoam cups of instant coffee from the canteen, a few holding Tim Horton’s cups – watching as some make regular treks outside for smokes, watching as they laugh and cajole each other over their winning bids for these icons of racism and intolerance.

At our local county fair last fall I took a picture of a big pick-up truck and the young men standing proudly under the huge Confederate flag attached to the bumper. No one seemed to notice or have a problem with them.

Of course no one in the audience talks of race, or intolerance. There is no political reflection before bidding on the confederate flag engraved hunting knife, no historical analysis concerning the “Red Indian”.

How can there be amongst a group of people with little education, who have, themselves, been the economic victims of a world that has completely passed them by?

Exploiter and exploited, privileged (vis-a-vis those deemed even lower on the totem pole), privileged yet poorer than church mice – marginal laborers and old waitresses with no dental plans, stoic in the face of their poverty, yet quick to violent solutions, the defeated and the proud, – each, and all coming together on these Saturday mornings to pick over junky relics of the past – nostalgic for those so-called simpler times.

Unlike the dealers who come to poach items for sale in the city or on the internet, they can afford only to bid on the more marginal items – an old hammer for $1, a teapot for $2 – at most an old dresser (that needs work) for $15.

I watch as they greet each other at the door in a way that reminds me of the times I have taken my mom to Sunday morning mass. The coming together of like-minded and spiritually akin people, a sub-nation who lives far out on the very margins of what the nightly prime-time newscasters reckons to be 2016.

A nation in no less sense of the word than the group of Toronto ex-pat retirees who gather every afternoon at the new local espresso bar/art gallery to drink cappuccinos and lattes and talk about their recent trips back to the AGO, or to the National Art Gallery in Ottawa, or their winter week just spent on an island somewhere in the Caribbean – everyone complaining about the poor state of local restaurants, or the dearth of organic produce at the local supermarket.

Finally, the stained glass hanging lamp my wife has had her eye on comes up for bidding – a lamp she says she has seen in stained glass stores in Toronto selling for upwards of $600.

She opens the bid at $20. No one else in the room is interested. The auctioneer pauses…once…twice…? Sold! My wife grins.

I put the lamp in the backseat of the car – chat with my uncle for a moment about the poor price of furs this winter – he says that its getting hardly worth trapping these days – we agree to get together for future beers and then we pile into our cars and head home…happy with our find, a little stunned by what we saw…


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